Archives For Words and Rabble

I have a little history with rejection. When we were dating (and during our engagement), Miska tossed me to the curb. Twice. Both times, I more than deserved it, but the pavement hurt nonetheless. Once I was in a conversation with a highly respected literary agent, beginning a conversation about the possibility of his firm representing me. He asked how many readers I had on my site. “Well, I’m working on it,” I answered, “but maybe a couple thousand when it’s going well.”

“A day?” he asked.

“Uh, no, per month.”

The phone went silent. “Well…” the agent began, slowly. “Let me put this in context. One of my authors sometimes hits 100,000 per day.” There were a few short pleasantries to follow, but the conversation was effectively finished.

I’ve had religious leaders tell me I was no longer part of the fold (fair enough), and I’ve had an employer tell me they were eager to get rid of me (that stung a little). As of last month, all three of my books are now out of print, and while perhaps this is not exactly rejection – it does mean that readers have chosen to leave my blood, sweat and tears on the shelf. Anyone who wants to be a writer must have at least a twinge of masochism. The rejection pile will be tall; and there are days when the stack (and the voices the stack represents) looms so large you can’t see past it. We all have our stories. We all have to contend with the voices.

Of course, not all rejection is final. Sometimes it eventually works out well (Miska and I are working on 17 years), but sometimes a ‘no’ is truly a ‘no’ (the agent is not on my speed dial). Not all rejection is final, but all rejection levels a blow.

But rejection offers us a gift as well. For some of us, the conflict redirects our passions, showing us where we need to go – only we needed the push to make it happen. The employer who couldn’t wait for me to hit the door oversaw a corporation masquerading as a Christian ministry. I should never have been there. If I had lingered for the next few years, I would have died the death of a thousand cuts.

For some of us, the blow will stiffen our spine, put a fire in the belly. With Miska, I needed to step into my life with courage, and Miska provided the wake-up call. With writing, while I wince at every ‘thanks, but no thanks,’ the process eventually leads me back to the desk, back to the words. I return with a deeper hunger, a deeper commitment to the work I must do.

This is not finally about only your work but your life, about receiving all that comes, sorting through it, learning at every turn, discarding the junk and tenaciously trusting the good. Allow these encounters to guide you, not bury you.

Maybe what I most want to say is this: rejection does not define you. Every ‘no’ grants the opportunity to peer deep, to ask again what it is you really want to give yourself to. And then, whatever the answer, get to it.

lebron james goes to cleveland

 

Dear LeBron,

You’ve done something extraordinary. You’ve made me pause and give attention to the NBA. When you dominate the bulk of NPR’s 7 minutes per week slated for sports coverage, then you have truly arrived. Most would think the signal of your cultural ascendancy was your gargantuan contracts, MVP’s, magazine spreads or championship rings. But no.

I want to tell you that I admire your return to Cleveland. I like Cleveland, I like a town with grit. What’s more, Drew Carey’s from Cleveland, so that makes Cleveland awesome. And for someone who has no legitimate connection with the city whatsoever, I’ve long had an inexplicable soft spot for Cleveland teams. In my opinion, the Browns have the best uniforms in the NFL. Brown and orange, so earthy. It’s like a color palette from Restoration Hardware’s Fall line. This observation will surely assuage the gloom of Cleveland Nation. Would you pass the word, tell them I said so?

But I digress. So, your return to Cleveland. There was no possible way for you to win on this one. You stay in Miami or take your sneakers — do you call them sneakers, by the way? Just curious. That’d be so fantastic and old school if you do — anyway, you stay in Miami or take your old school sneakers to any of the other high-gear franchises and you’re called a mercenary moneygrubber. You return to Cleveland and the history I’m sure you’d like to forget just cues again. You have to grapple with the fans who were devastated and endure the entire sports world dissecting your motives. You have to recount the images of your jersey being burned. You have to leave the fabulous Cuban food in Miami. Whew, I’m exhausted just writing it.

Anyway, it seems to me like you just said “screw it” and did what you wanted. I like that. (I also liked that you didn’t do the whole prime time announcement thing again. I mean, I know there was no way you were repeating that. And I know you’re sick of hearing about it, but man…wow…yeah, the simple print interview was much better. Live and learn.)

Of course, it’s possible this whole deal was a publicity coup. I know you’ve got big suits helping you navigate such things. But Lebron, the answer you gave for why Cleveland? rang true. You simply said that you wanted to go back home. I think that’s what we all want, in one way or the other. We want to return. We want to find our way back to our people, to the places or the friendships that we have carried with us even when we had to roam. Sometimes it takes a while to figure out who exactly we’re going to give ourselves to, who (or what) we are responsible for, where we will lay our weight down. But whenever we find that place, those friends, I hope we’ll all have the courage to name it home. I hope we’ll have the courage to draw a circle there and say, “Count me in.”

 

be well,

Winn

P.S. You know, the whole time I’ve been writing about you finding your way back home, Dorothy and Oz and getting those pony tails back to Kansas keeps popping in my brain. And I apologize because the mental image of you in a blue gingham dress and glittery ruby slippers is pretty darn hilarious. You could totally slam dunk the Wicked Witch, no doubt in my mind.

On my jog down Main Street yesterday morning, I encountered a young couple busking. They were obviously new to the trade, out so early when the crowd is sparse and the tips will be almost nil. Perhaps this was their gig, just learning the ropes and stepping in slowly when there’s less risk, less comparison to the many fine musicians who, on the really good days, make Charlottesville’s downtown mall something like an open-air version of Austin City Limits. The fellow, hair flowing and guitar raging, wailed lyrics to songs I did not recognize. I would not call his voice powerful or beautiful or clear even, but he owned every syllable. I will not criticize; it worked for Dylan. The woman, however, sang meekly. As I ran closer, her voice grew softer and softer. Her eyes dropped to the ground. I think, for her, it was courage simply to stay in place and keep her mouth moving in hopes that sound might squeak out.

In the afternoon, I was again downtown for errands, and another couple had secured Main Street for their stage. This duo, however, were legitimate troubadours. I could imagine them as the coolest street-smart characters from a Dickens’ novel…if Copperfield had displayed a penchant for futuristic fantasy…and been set in Nashville. The fellow wore tight black pants, black boots and a black vest over his bare chest. A black-straw summer fedora topped his head, with a couple dark curls, like Jewish payots, dropping to his jaw. His guitar hung from his shoulders, and he played a folksy tune, a cross between the Avett Brothers and a circus tune if you can imagine.

The woman wore a black lace top and a black mid-length skirt. Black stockings rose to just below her knee, black shoes. Her body swayed as she worked the rhythm of her black accordion. Both musicians had face tattoos, shapes of elongated spider webs or perhaps a mythical Celtic symbol. They were a sight. And they could play and sing.

His fingers danced up the neck of his guitar, and she made that little accordion hum. The melody was haunting, crisp. This was music that, if you were to stay for more than a few verses, would eventually require some kind of commitment. Their open guitar case sat on the ground, a few wadded dollars and copies of a self-produced CD lying on the faded red velvet.

What fascinated me most, however, was two little bells sitting at the woman’s feet. These were the old brass-colored bells that you’d find in the mom and pop dry cleaners, the ones on the front counter with a note next to them saying, “We’re in the back. Ring for service.” The woman had these two bells with two different pitches (who knew?), and her feet tapped them, creating a magical rhythm that covered this space of crowded commerce with enchantment. She rang that bell and danced with her accordion, and we all were caught up in her beauty.

A woman with the courage to hold her ground and a woman with the courage to ring, ring those bells. We’re all in different places, we’re all learning to trust what we have to give. We all can add to the music of this old world.

Friends, I want to play more this summer, as you do I’m sure. More space for the wild things, for the small things. I’ll be more whimsical on my writing schedule during the summer months. You might be able to catch me down by the river, but come quietly – and bring a beverage.

 

gone fishin

Running on 5th Street this morning, I spotted one of Charlottesville’s Finest from the motorcycle patrol unit moving slow in traffic ahead of me. Tall, beefy and toned, the officer’s biceps bulged from his uniform. The Kevlar vest fitted under his shirt added to his intimidating dimensions, making it obvious this officer worked the gym, not the donuts. The officer wore solid black, from his taut shirt to his black pants down to his thick leather boots .

The officer pulled to a stop light. His beast of a machine, merely idling, sounded hungry. The muscular officer, firearm strapped to his side. The cycle grumbling. A man not to be tangled with.

Pulling closer, my ears caught tunes pulsing from the bike’s radio. Would you believe the officer had Pharrell Williams belting “Happy”? I may have even seen his leather boot tapping the asphalt.

Joy is everywhere.

Dancing

Most nights, I go to each boy’s bedside and tell them goodnight. I make a slight sign of the cross on their forehead, bless them, say a short prayer for love and rest, tussle their hair and kiss them on the cheek. There are nights when I do this with fatherly joy. There are also nights when, because they are 10 and 11 and have mastered the children’s equivalent of digging their bony elbow into my rawest nerve, I do this in faith, trusting the love I know is there.

One might hope that one’s sons, over the many years enacting this ritual, would sense a little of the gravity and maybe even begin to cherish these moments. I’m not asking my two sons to pit themselves against one another, like Esau and Jacob, scheming or pleading for my better blessing. I’d simply like them to put down Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix or my collector’s edition of Calvin and Hobbes which they took without asking and actually notice that their father loves them, blast it.

Several weeks ago, I was in the room of my youngest. Sign of the cross, prayer, kiss on the cheek. “Good night, bud,” I said, hand on his head. Seth looked up, as if my voiced pulled him out of a fascinating dream sequence. Seth began to chuckle. “What?” I asked.

“Uhmmm…” Seth’s smile broke wide, more laughter. “I wasn’t really paying attention.”

Of course, this is where I jerked my hand away, leveled my most shaming look and slowly backed out of his room in disgust. Such a disappointment, this distracted, childish son of mine.

Ridiculous. I actually chuckled too, gave Seth another pat on the head. I probably asked him what girl was tiptoeing through his mind. I told Seth I loved him and left him to his sweet fantasies until the next night when we’d cue the whole spiel again. Obviously there was nothing heroic here, just how most any dad would respond to his goofball son being a goofball son.

Yet some of us think God a worse father than this. Somehow, many of us have learned to live in shame (or terror) of the ways we believe we disappoint the One who loves us. We live on the razor edge, vigilant over our every action, every motive, every belief. We’re so fearful that we’ll forget to pay attention, and heaven knows we can’t let that happen.

I believe God would love to chuckle with us in these moments. Keeping a close watch, getting things correct – these are not the center. Love is the center. “But still,” says Hafiz, “God is delighted and amused you once tried to be a saint.”

Every so often (but not as often as I’d like), when the moon is just so or there’s been a little too much wine a little too late in the evening, I find my way back to this recurring dream.

We live in a village, an odd place nestled amid the lush green and rolling hills of the Shenandoah but also surrounded by the Rocky’s rugged ridges where aspens stand sentinel. We grow strawberries, apples and blackberries in the valley, but most afternoons we fill our knapsacks to overflowing and walk above the timberline for lunch with a view. Our neighborhood swimming hole is a high mountain lake, a spot we call Blue Magic. Many, wide-eyed, have reeled in their first trout at Blue Magic. Many, wide-eyed, have felt love’s first fire under the stars on a sensuous summer night. At this place, life blossoms.

We live on Maple St., a winding avenue lined with century-old oaks and swaths of verdant Midnight Kentucky Blue Grass surrounding every Craftsman cottage. Our little half-acre has a name, as do all the homes in our village. The hand carved wood sign attached next to the deep purple door on our wide, shaded front porch reads Elm Grove, but most of our friends simply refer to it as Elm. “Dinner at Elm tonight,” they’ll say. Or “Gonna run over to Elm to trade out books.” Our friends surround us, as friends should. Their homes, like their lives, create what we mean whenever we say neighborhood. Two doors down sits The Fable House. Across the street, you’ll find Casa del Amor and Shalom. One block behind us, The Abbey and River Stone. Each home a place filled with laughter, a place where we know ourselves more than we could ever have known ourselves on our own.

Each of us works our trade. I have a little writing shed behind our cottage, fitted just between Miska’s herb garden and the three-level tree fort Wyatt and Seth built. The fort’s a little cattywampus, but nobody cares. I craft my novels the first half of the week and craft my sermon the second, though these two acts overlap more than some prefer. I visit parishioners, but I just think of it as visiting friends.

If you’re rolling your eyes because this sounds sweet and idyllic, hold on for one more bit: the first Friday night during Spring and Summer, we take turns at each others’ place for a homemade ice cream fest (the hand-churned sort) with every conceivable flavor: chocolate chip, strawberry, peanut butter mocha, caramel apple – all loaded with fresh cream and piled high. We eat bowl after bowl, and we never gain an ounce.

Give a man his dream.

Glorious, glorious spring has arrived in Charlottesville, and all the Colliers are clapping our hands in delight and gratitude. On Saturday we pulled out the bikes and made a family caravan, like a line of eager ducks, downtown to the outdoor City Market. Each weekend, the Market takes over an expansive parking lot and packs in vendor’s booths, tight as sardines. Organic plants (three tomatoes, one red pepper and two basil for us), fresh produce, baked goods (Wyatt scarfed a blueberry muffin nearly as big as his face), those dangerous handcrafted tacos (line stretching at least half a block) and every manner of artisan craft (jewelery, paintings, woodwork, you name it). It’s a marvelous mess of creation, humanity and goodness.

After Wyatt picked out his colossal-sized muffin, I went to pay and found myself among a small crush pressed tight between two vendors, one tempting us with an assortment of fluffy biscuits, the other displaying tarts and pound cake and cookies. A perilous spot. I stood behind an elderly woman, in her eighties I suspect. She was tall, but slightly stooped. She wore a faded denim shirt, full sleeves and a dark blue skirt flowing nearly to the ground. Her silver hair touched her shoulders, a beauty undiminished by her aged frame and her shuffling movement.

Attempting to step away from the table, the matron turned toward me. She caught me unawares, and I simply froze. We met face to face, only two or three inches separating us. Without a hiccup or any hesitation, she smiled, big blue eyes. She put her finger up right at my goatee. “My, my,” she chuckled. Her kind, raspy voice barely more than a whisper. “Isn’t that a cute mustache.” And then she moved past me.

That exchange, those words, have brought me joy for the past two days. A very human moment, right up close. It was the most natural thing for that dear woman to put her hand to my face, to hold my eyes with hers, to speak a word of delight. My only regret is that I wish I’d possessed the presence of body and soul that she carried so easily. I wish I had kissed her on her cheek.

poem in pocket

As you surely know, the Academy of American Poets has christened today National Poem in Your Pocket Day. The idea is to take poetry to the streets, carrying a poem with you, in your jacket or pants as well as in your imagination. Let the words linger. Let them play with you. Take an extra copy and pass the good word along to an unsuspecting coworker or seatmate on the bus.

I asked my friend (and one of my favorite poets) John Blase to pen us a short verse that we could carry with us today. He was generous to oblige. Tuck this away, take it with you.

A Fine Thing

A poem is a fine thing
to carry around in your pocket,
that and a few pennies to hand
children having complete nuclear
meltdowns near grocery store doors
because their exhausted mothers
don’t have any small change for
Champion the mechanized stallion.
Just smile and say ‘here ya go’
then walk away. If you linger
you’ll break the spell of kindness,
and shame will worm its way in
to cheapen your gift. Most people
live on the shame aisle. So just go
on about your business and leave
a mother and a child charmed.

My earliest years were spent on a ranch in Tennessee. My co-conspirator Wil lived next door, and we enjoyed an idyllic childhood. There were horses and ranch hands, thousands of acres stretching over hills and woods all the way up to Lookout Point. The vast land brimmed with stories of Indian lore, the sort that would make a young boy’s hair stand up, wild stories that would convince him, especially on deep summer nights, that he saw ghosts from the old tribes.

Wil owned a pony named Snowflake that grazed in a small pasture just behind his house. Snowflake was docile enough, but she possessed a minor mean streak that, for some inexplicable reason, flared up around me. I have this effect on certain creatures. One afternoon, we saddled the pony for Wil to take a ride, and when he returned, Wil handed me the reigns before he went inside. I hopped atop the miniature steed, eager for my opportunity to enact fantasies of Wyatt Earp or Kit Carson.

I couldn’t have been in the saddle more than two or three minutes when the pony turned stubborn. I insisted on at least a gallant trot; Snowflake insisted she meander. Meander? How could a law man ride into the blazing thick of a frontier range war with a horse who will only grunt and crunch on weeds? I was the boss here, and I’d have none of this insolence. I gripped the reigns and gave Snowflake a swift kick to the flank. The next few seconds were a blur. I remember an angry snort. I remember a lurching sensation, my stomach jumping to my throat. I remember being launched, like those times at the pool when my dad would catapult me from his shoulders high into the air.

I woke up flat on my back, the sun warming my face, a large horsefly buzzing near my head. I don’t know how long I had been out, but Snowflake stood lazily across the field, munching and content. I stood up, muscles throbbing. I wobbled several steps to pick up my Stetson cowboy hat. Gingerly, I walked to the pony and picked up the reigns dangling on the ground, leading her, humbly, back toward the house.

For the next week, I walked sore, battle scars of a man who’d been bucked from the back of a wild mare and lived to tell the tale. This was the summer of legend.